Traditional crops key to facing climate change

Technical staff from the NARI PGR team at Laloki recording useful information observed at the yam collection site
James Laraki

TRADITIONAL food crops and other plant varieties worldwide are in urgent need of protection from climate change and other environmental stresses, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says. Speaking at the 10th anniversary of the international treaty to protect and share plant genetic resources recently,
FAO Director-General, Jacques Diouf, called on countries to develop specific policies to conserve and make wider use of plant varieties for generations to come.

"The conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture is key to ensuring that the world will produce enough food to feed its growing population in the future," Diouf said.

Diouf pointed out that the global gene pool of plant genetic material constitutes the basis of the world's food derived from plants and it is possibly our most important tool for adapting agriculture to climate change in the years to come.

The pacific region including PNG is rich in plant genetic resources (PGR) and home to many food crops, green leafy vegetables, and fruits and nuts. This we should be proud off and of course the world appreciates our diversity. However, much of this biodiversity is eroding fast as noted by FAO and we must do what is necessary to avoid the loose of this diversity. There is fear already that our diversity is eroding fast and is likely to continue to do so if we do not attend to it.

There are number of factors that are contributing to the erosion of our plant genetic diversity. Lack of national policy on plant genetic resources, lack of skilled personnel, changes in perception of consumers, limited domestic market networks for traditional crops, non-existence of in-country network to name a few. Added to this is the fact that work on PGR has been given less priority in terms of research and development over the past decades. Research and development attempts at the collection, conservation and utilization of indigenous PGR have been to some extend uncoordinated and ineffective.

NARI has started well since 1998 when it took over the agricultural research functions from the Department of Agriculture and Livestock (DAL). The institute has appointed a very senior national scientist to coordinate PGR work. It also continues to take charge of the field germplasm collections of major staple crops like sweet potato, taro, banana, yams and aibika (a traditional vegetable) that were initiated by DAL in the 80s.

What is needed now is create positions for curators and technical support staff to be responsible for PGR management and nothing else. It is also necessary to provide the appropriate training and provide the necessary support in terms of resources to effectively implement the task on hand.

NARI has been fortunate to conduct a series of training on PGR and breeding for research and technical staff from various institutions in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and PNG through a capacity building project supported by the EU ACP Science and Technology programme. The onus is now on these men and women to make use of what they have gained from these trainings to do what they can to maintain and protect our diversity.

Networking among all stakeholders is also required as we need to approach this task as team including; farmers, state agencies, development partners, NGOs, women groups and youth. Farmers, as initial contributors and beneficiaries, would have to be more actively involved now than in the past. It is unfortunate that farmers as key actors in the conservation and sustainable use of food crops are struggling to understand with all the changes that are happening around them. It is essential for us to engage them in a very practical way to ensure they are able to recognise and appreciate how our huge diversity can help them adapt to climate change and contribute to food security.

There is also a need for educational and awareness aimed at emphasising the importance of conservation and use of traditional crops.

Plant genetic resources form the basis for breeding, an important area in science that has been left unattended for a while. We need to do what is necessary and move on with it. This needs to be considered seriously, especially with respect to food crop diversity, as the crops in question are directly responsible for the livelihoods of the majority of our people.  And it is on this basis that FAO as the world body responsible has expressed its concerns.

We need to explore the potential benefits that our traditional food crops can offer to the national, regional as well as global food and nutrition security. We will only appreciate their potential if we can collect, conserve and utilize them.  

While PNG is the centre of diversity of many food crop genera, we have a long way to go to really appreciate and realize their potential benefits.

Before anything else, we need to have an effective PGR coordination and management structure in place. We can then look at how we can contribute to regional and global efforts to better utilize PGR towards achieving mutual benefits and for the overall good of humanity. Hopefully, our efforts will contribute to the concerns of FAO and others concerned with our food and nutrition security.

Photo: Technical staff from the NARI PGR team at Laloki recording useful information observed at the yam collection site.